Taking a stand for organic: Suing USDA over derailment of organic animal welfare

The continued success of our organic sector demands that organic standards be robust, consistent and clear to stay meaningful and maintain the integrity of organic and the organic seal.

Acting on behalf of the organic sector to defend the organic seal and organic standards, the Organic Trade Association last September took the very serious step of filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its failure to put into effect new organic livestock and poultry regulations. This action was not taken lightly. But after careful consideration, it was clear that this step was necessary to stand up on behalf of our organic community and protect organic integrity, advance animal welfare, and safeguard the process for developing organic standards.

CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha explains it this way: “The organic industry deeply respects its contract with the consumer and will not stand aside while the government holds back the meaningful and transparent choice of organic foods that deliver what the consumer wants. The government’s failure to move ahead with this fully vetted regulation turns upside down the entire process by which organic regulations are set—a process that Congress created, the industry has worked within, and consumers trust.”

Acting in the interests of the organic sector, the Organic Trade Association’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to legally take USDA to task for not honoring its rule-making mandate as a federal agency. The lawsuit was filed on September 13.

Our suit alleges that the USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act, and unlawfully delayed the effective date of the final livestock standards developed by industry and in accordance with the established rule-making processes. The suit also contends that USDA violated the Administrative Procedure Act—which sets out the rule-making processes established by Congress—because the repeated delays were issued without any public process. The trade association also alleges that USDA abused its discretion by ignoring the overwhelming public record established in support of these organic standards.

Supporting the Organic Trade Association in the suit, as groups harmed by this protracted government inaction, are organizations representing organic livestock farmers, organic certification agencies, and organic retailers and consumers.

The organic animal welfare rule is the result of 14 years of public and transparent work within the process established by Congress, and reflects deep engagement and input by organic stakeholders during multiple administrations, both Republican and Democrat. It addresses four broad areas of organic livestock and poultry practices, including living conditions, animal healthcare, transport, and slaughter. The rule represents a refinement of a series of organic animal welfare recommendations incorporated into the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established the federal regulations overseeing the U.S. organic sector.

After extensive public input and a thorough vetting process, the National Organic Program published the final rule on Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices in the January 19, 2017, Federal Register. Due to a White House Memorandum to federal agencies released on January 20, 2017, requesting a regulatory freeze on rules recently published or pending, the effective date of the rule was delayed to May 19.

On May 10, USDA delayed the effective date again by an additional six months to November 14, 2017, and opened a 30-day comment period asking for responses to four possible options for the Final Rule that ranged from letting the rule become effective, which meant the rule would become effective Nov. 14, 2017, to completely withdrawing it.

More than 47,000 comments were received during the 30-day comment period, with 99 percent of those comments in support of the rule becoming effective as written without further delays. Just 28 comments—out of close to 50,000—wanted the rule withdrawn.

USDA chose to ignore the overwhelming support for the rule’s implementation, however, and in November, delayed the effective date even further, until May 2018, citing “concerns regarding statutory authority, and costs and benefits” of the regulation.

Finally, on Dec. 15, USDA announced its plan to completely withdraw the regulation, and gave the public just 30 days—over the holiday period—to respond. The timing for the public to respond couldn’t have been worse, but in the end that didn’t matter. More than 70,000 comments were filed, AGAIN overwhelmingly in support of the organic standard.

Organic farmers, organic businesses, and today’s consumers want organic standards to be strong, and they responded as such. Their comments throughout this long process have clearly illustrated the deep public support for the organic standards that have successfully guided the organic industry and earned public trust. Their comments are solid proof of the widespread public concern that the opt-in organic standards not be weakened or called into question by the government’s refusal to follow the public/private rule-making process established by Congress.

We choose organic because we know it makes a difference. We look for the USDA Organic seal because we understand that the seal means that product was grown and produced in ways that are different from other agricultural practices. Organic dairy, livestock and egg producers follow the highest standards in caring for their animals because that is what they believe in. And, that is what the organic consumer rightfully expects of the organic industry.

“Organic regulations apply only to certified organic producers, and those organic producers are overwhelmingly in favor of this new regulation. Most of the criticism of the new organic animal welfare rule has come from outside the sector, and by special interest groups not impacted by the regulation, but which would like to override the will of our members,” says Batcha.

The organic sector depends on USDA to set organic standards fairly and according to the law. When USDA fails to do this, it is time for the organic community to insist that it live up to its responsibility. The Organic Trade Association will continue to fight to uphold organic standards  that this Administration continues to willfully ignore. The association is confident that it will prevail in the courts on this important issue for the organic sector.   //

The nation’s organic food movement—representing dozens of brands, thousands of organic farmers, millions of organic consumers, retailers, certifiers and associations—published an open letter in The Washington Post on Jan. 16, 2018 (two days before the comment period closed) demanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture stop interfering with the public process that has created clear standards for animal welfare in organic food production. In a full-page paid advertisement in the newspaper, the group, led by Organic Valley, asked USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to reinstate the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule issued January 2017.